With so many people professing concern for saving the souls of others, we have precious few willing to search their own. Facts about the Emanuel AME Church massacre in Charleston are yet unfolding, but political machinations to deny the obvious racial motives speak volumes about our society’s inability to confront this issue.
The alleged actions of a hate-filled young white man accused by police of slaying nine black church goers in Charleston say nothing about me as a white man living in America. But, like every other white American, my reaction matters. How do we explain this societal unease with admitting the continued existence of racial bias, hatred, and violence in this country? Why must so many feel threatened to acknowledge these things still exist? Why must governors, senators, representatives, and presidential candidates rush to declare the days of such things behind us – when clearly they are not?
The only first reaction we should have to horrors like what unfolded in that church Wednesday night is profound, deep, heartbreaking sadness. Above all else, we must mourn those lost and grieve for the families and communities impacted.
But, beyond that let us set aside posturing, finger pointing, and supposition. Let us do what we seem loathe doing as individuals or a society. We must search our own souls for answers. Indeed, our strident refusal to do so raises the clearest signal as to why we must go there.
Racism is an inadequate concept – a word we’ve turned into a binary property. Perhaps it’s rooted in our broader societal obsession with labels. Pardon the expression, but we see it as black or white. Deeds must be either racist or not racist, and we debate it ad nauseam. But, like all things human, it’s more complicated. Our thoughts, our words, our deeds… all are products of our biases, prejudices, generalizations, and phobias.
For 99.999 percent of us, these biases don’t provoke violence – much less murder – but they lead us in more subtle ways down paths of indifference, inaction, silence, and defiant defensiveness.
Merriam-Webster defines racism as: “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.”
Outside avowed supremacists, the extent to which we internalize the latter part of that is perhaps unconscious and hard to confirm or deny. But, those willing to honestly search our own souls are hard-pressed to honestly deny the first aspect of that definition in our thinking.
Black, white, brown, or whatever, we are products of our upbringing, our culture, our experiences, and messaging from a barrage of media. We encounter new people every day, and skin color triggers assumptions in each of us. It causes reflexive actions we may not be proud of, but can only partly control.
I’m not ashamed to admit I’m human. I confessed to my own racial reflexes in a story last year titled If You Met an Angel on the Street Today, Would You Know It.
Yes, it’s an enormous leap from reaching for car door locks when a black man passes to gunning down innocent people in a church. But, when we refuse to acknowledge the small and seemingly harmless racial triggers in our beliefs and actions, we render ourselves impotent in the larger moral battle to put an end to the horrific and senseless violence assaulting our society.
When we lose ourselves in circles of denial to avoid looking honestly at our own human frailties, we create a void of moral ambiguity into which all manner of evil may come.
By admitting our smaller failings, we can overcome them. We don’t magically eliminate preconceived notions and reflexes, but awareness gives us choices in how we act. It frees us from putting all our energies into denying our human nature. It empowers us to call things what they are, without somehow feeling personally threatened by the truth.
The racial violence committed by a lone gunman in Charleston this week is the tip of a much larger iceberg — though the rhetoric, sick thinking, and all-consuming hate beneath those actions is hardly hidden from view. It’s time we stopped letting our insecurities stop us from calling it what it is and doing something about it.
Racism exists in America; it seems silly to have to say it. Yet, ignoring this in thoughts and words is accepting it to erupt in harmful, sometimes violent deeds. This we can simply no longer do.